Bob the CPA: This is Abacus. I’m Bob the CPA. My guest today is Kristen Rampe, and she’ll be sharing some business communication strategies, including an overview of the different communication styles, why they matter and how to handle difficult conversations at work. All this, coming up on Abacus. Let’s go.
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Hello, and welcome back to another episode of the Abacus Show, where I bring together the smartest people I can find, and ask them to share their experience to help you become a top performer.
My guest today is Kristen Rampe. She’s a CPA and leadership consultant who helps accountants focus on learning soft skills like communication, client service and building great teams. In this discussion, we’re gonna focus on business communication, why it’s important and a few quick ways you can improve.
While you’re listening, try to think of your own communication style, and how it matches up with the style of your co workers and clients. Maybe you’ll learn how to improve your own office communications and get better results. You can get a summary and links for everything we talk about today in the show notes for this episode at abacusshow.com/209. Now let’s jump right into the interview with Kristen Rampe.
Okay, let’s just jump right in. We have talked briefly about going through and maybe doing an effective business communication, kind of a 101-level course. So I was wondering … Before we get into that, would you mind kind of walking me through your career up to this point, and how you’ve kind of learned along the way? And then we can go into, kind of, some tips you have for people getting started.
Kristen Rampe: I started my career with Price Waterhouse Coopers in San Jose, California, and I worked in their audit group for close to three years, and I audited mostly software and Internet companies.
And following that, I worked in the industry briefly just for about a year and a half, and then I went back into public accounting at a regional firm called Frank, Rimerman also out in the San Francisco area. And I worked there for seven years and I did a little bit of auditing, a lot of starting docs with compliance, and also quite a few consulting projects which were … Was anything that came to our firm that didn’t, sort of, fit into the tasks or audits, or other departments that we had established … Showed up on my desk and we had to figure out what the client needed and how we would address it, and get those projects taken care of. So that was actually quite a bit of fun. So that was my, kind of, ten-year public accounting past. And then five years ago, I left there and started my own firm.
And so now, I work with CPAs kind of on the other side. So I bring leadership development, communication and other sort of, soft skills training to firms and individuals that want to improve in those areas.
Bob the CPA: And when you’re doing these, I guess the trainings, do you usually go into the firm, or is it online? Or how does that work?
Kristen Rampe: Yeah, it’s usually on site. I’m a big fan of face-to-face. I do do some online sort of webcast or webinar-type training. And certainly coaching one-on-one by phone with individuals, but a lot of the work I do … Retreats and all-hands meetings and workshops … Those are usually face-to-face because it’s so much easier to get your point across and communicate with somebody and share with them with their own clients and their own teams when they’re there in person.
Bob the CPA: So what I’ve done today … And we’ve talked a little bit before we hopped on this call is …I kind of pulled out a couple topics that I think would translate well to audio from the list of topics you have on these … Your in-person, onsite trainings.
So I wanted to give people a heads-up that if they visit your website at kristenrampe.com, they can check out the full course offering. And if they want to bring you in for a … I assume … Teach them in more detail, or to teach their team, or to teach other people at other offices … I assume that’s something you’re available for. Is that correct?
Kristen Rampe: Absolutely. Yup, that’s what I do.
Bob the CPA: Okay. Today’s we’re gonna talk about effective business communication, and we’re gonna talk about a couple things you can start doing right now to kind of recognize your communication style, fix your business writing, and then also kind of how to deal with some of the more difficult conversations you come across in the office.
Starting out, would you mind kind of walking us through communication styles, and why it’s important to recognize them?
Kristen Rampe: Yeah, I’d love to.
So, communication styles are when you have an awareness that there are styles out there beyond your own … It can help you get your message across more effectively to the person that you’re trying to communicate with. That’s sort of the premise of these styles.
So, a lot of times, we just get caught up in thinking, “Why don’t they understand what I’m saying? Why aren’t they getting the message in the way I’m sending it?”
One of the reasons could be that you’re sending it in a way that you would like to receive it, and that’s more comfortable for you to be delivering it. But when you think about delivering a message that’s more important than saying, “Would you like to go get a sandwich at lunch time?”, it’s great to consider your audience and their preferred style, so that you can kind of move towards their direction and match their style to be more effective.
Bob the CPA: And could you give me an example of a couple of the different communication styles?
Kristen Rampe: Yeah. So there’s four … If you kind of think of a quadrant grid. There are sort of four styles. And most people utilize a combination of them, but everybody usually has a strength, an area that they sort of gravitate to. And the four that I see are direct and the way you might sort of recognize someone in that style is that’s the person who’s gonna send you an email and all it’s going to say is “THX” which is that abbreviation for thanks, like they can’t even be bothered to write out the whole word. They just want to get this thing off their plate. Also there’s the people who type the question in the subject line with end of message and send it off. Lots of people use that a lot of times, but that’s a great characteristic of the direct style.
The second one would be the sociable style, and these are not in any particular order, but just the order I thought to talk about them, so would be sociable. And these are the people who kind of need or really want to talk about their day, or their week, or their vacation, before they can get down to business with you and talk about the details of the question or problem you’re going to discuss. So they’re the ones that really enjoy building that camaraderie and relationship when you’re speaking with them.
Third one, analytical. These are the people that want all the details. They might need a little more time to marinade or process something before they make a decision, but they really love having everything laid out for them. Sometimes they are the ones going to seek the details, it doesn’t mean you have to always give it to them but they love, once they have all the information to make a decision.
And then the fourth style, being considerate. And the considerate folks are the ones that really want to think about how what we’re doing or an initiative or a project or a project, impacts other people in addition to what’s going with the business. So these are the folks that are out there making sure that everyone is representative and has a chance to talk, before coming to a conclusion.
So those are the four different styles and a few little tips on how you might be able to identify them in the workplace.
Bob the CPA: So good way I can think of from my own experience using these is, when I was out at an audit client for example, and I needed to get something from a client contact. I would often have people who would prefer that I send them a detailed list of exactly what they need in email and it could be a two page email and they’d be extremely happy with that, and then there’s also people who are like “Just give me a call and tell me real quick what you want.” Does that kind of fit into these styles?
Kristen Rampe: Yeah, I mean the styles and then the methods are two different things, but they do play well together. So, yeah that one person who just is too busy or wants all the details so clearly laid out is going to want that two page email with all the details and they don’t want you to stop by and comment on the picture of their dog on the desk. They just want you to get the stuff sent and get out of there. And another person may want you to come by, and sort of have a few things to say and then ask them for something and they get it you. So you want to think about both the vehicle and the style that the person might prefer to receive the information from you.
Bob the CPA: Applying this to your everyday life, if you’re out at say a client site and you’re not sure what somebody’s communication style is, what are some clues you can pick up, or what should your default be before you understand what their preferred communication style is?
Kristen Rampe: The first thing I would do is if you’ve got a team member who might know, I would ask that person if you’re out at a job, you’ve got a manager or partner that might have a bead on how best to communicate with them. Or even having them proofread a email, or you tell them what you’re planning on saying and see how they feel. So first one, see if there is information in the room if you will. And the second is I would go with sort of a neutral professional approach. So you don’t want it to be too reserved and technical and not at all warm, but you don’t want it to be too warm and overflowing with all of the, “Hey guess what I did last week” and all this stuff.
So you want to have a little bit of warmth and a little bit of getting to the details, and the best way to judge it from there is watch their replies and see how they’re communicating back to you, because they are likely not analyzing “How can I best communicate with my auditor?” They’re just doing their default. So when they reply to you take your cues from that, and again you always want to be professional so I wouldn’t be too short in your emails even if the controller is writing back to you with one word responses, you’re going to want to give him the courtesy of a complete sentence, but you can be brief and clear about what you’re saying back to him.
Bob the CPA: Okay and so moving on to our next topic, I think that’s a good jumping off point is, let’s say you decide that either the person’s preferred method of communication is seeing things in writing or there’s just sometimes you just have to do stuff through email, just for logistical purposes or whatever, so, are there a couple of things you see people doing that they should really not be doing when they’re writing business emails or business communication?
Kristen Rampe: Oh boy, yeah there are all sorts of things not to be doing. I think one of the biggest things is sending an email when you shouldn’t send an email. And I hear this in my work, I work with a variety of levels CPA firms, so from staff all the way up to the partners. And the other day I did a workshop and we had I think probably the least experience in the room probably had four to five years, up to 25 years, and over 60 people. And we put them around the room according to their communication styles actually and had them write out a little chart, “What are your pet peeves as it relates to communications?” One thing that showed up on every single list was the pet peeve was too many emails, which is interesting because if everyone is annoyed about how many emails, who’s sending all these emails, right?
So I think one of the things that I see people do is sending an email when they could pick up a phone or they could walk to the office next door and that’s a great one to even just ask. If I have a quick question would you prefer that I show you an email, send you an instant message, text you or swing by your office, and see what they say. You might come up with some great ways of communicating with people based on how they would like to receive the information.
Bob the CPA: If you’re a staff out there, your seniors and managers will love you for this, cause you will get work done so much more quickly if you just walk over there as opposed to waiting for clients to email you back. For the communications themselves are there anything during the writing that people should be focused on to maybe look more professional or just get the message across better, is the best word I can come up with.
Kristen Rampe: Right? No definitely. I’ve got a couple of tips that people can do they’re not too hard but they do take thought. Before I get into those I would say that these apply to an email that you care about, so I wouldn’t suggest that you do these steps again on pinging somebody for whether or not they want a ham sandwich or a turkey sandwich, this is not, the context is an email that have a little more weight to them.
So when you do find yourself needing to send something electronically or even in any other written context, the first tip is turning your whole body away from your computer screen and answering the question in six words or less “What do I want to say?” Or “What do I want to have happen as a result of this message?” Because a lot of times we start with our fingers on the keyboard and our eyes on the blank page or the reply page and we’re trying to figure out right there without actually thinking about “What’s my goal?” “What’s my high level six word goal for this email?” Like, “I want them to give me the PBC items.” Maybe that’s more than six words but the point is to not spend two sentences on that, so just thinking about really clearly what you want them to do as a result of the email.
So that would be one tip. And that’s going to help you get a succinct written piece with clarity and brevity which are some great characteristics. Another tip, and I’ve got three if I didn’t say it already, so the next tip is while you’re drafting it or certainly at the end, stand in their shoes and say “Hey if I were Bob the CPA, receiving this email, how would I react to it?” “How would I take this?” If I stood in my client’s shoes or my manager’s shoes what would be my reaction? And is this the reaction you want?
And then my last one is, not everybody struggles with this, but I know some people do and officially it’s okay to be social and conversational and even fun in your message, we don’t have to keep everything so button down professional that we don’t open ourselves up and being sort of a real person in our message. Because this is what relationships are built on and generally speaking with all the people we’re writing we want to build some type of a relationship. And you want your recipients to look forward to your communications, not to dread them. So if again, if you are friendly in your emails and you give them something worth reading beyond the details, that can often be useful. Of course keeping in mind that the style of the person that you are trying to communicate with.
Those are a couple tips that I think could help people really tighten up again the emails when they are more important than just what’s for lunch.
Bob the CPA: That’s great. I always like to have maybe some tips people can start doing right away. And those are great ways anyone listening can go back to their desk after this and for the next important email you write you can have it be better than it was before. So thank you so much for that.
Moving on to our final topic for today is … this is somewhere I for sure have not received any formal training and I really wish I would have when I was in the firms. Because these things come up in your professional life all the time is when you have to manage these difficult decisions.
I was wondering if you could kind of walk us through how we should be thinking about these difficult conversations, and kind of how to handle them.
Kristen Rampe: It’s a huge topic. I’m gonna see what I can do in a couple of minutes, just to give you a couple of really high level things.
First one I would say is just to think about what makes a conversation difficult to begin with. Really what’s going on there is heightened emotions and feelings, that’s kind of number one. It’s sometimes hard to say because accounting … we generally don’t think about accounting and emotions, right? In fact leave your crying, there’s no crying in accounting, check your emotions at the door, those are a lot of the messages that we hear. What can actually be very useful is to acknowledge your emotions in a calm and professional way, but recognizing that you do get frustrated, and you do get angry, and you go get irritated in the workplace. So starting there that can be the result of the way other people are working with you or not working with you as the case may be.
So bringing that in that that’s often what makes conversations difficult is we have heightened feelings. We often don’t have what you just said, we don’t have a lot of skills in dealing with it. So it’s not something that many people in the profession at any stage of their career have really practiced in a safe environment where they feel like “Okay I’m gonna practice having a difficult conversation,” without actually having it to make it work during when you go into it.”
What can go wrong … if you don’t check in with those things first and you just go into a conversation feeling really frustrated a lot of times the words we use are not the ones that are most effective at communicating with them. But instead, if you think about the conversation as an opportunity to connect and a way to come up with win win for everybody that can be a useful perspective as you go into them.
Let me share an example with you, just to kind of highlight some ways to address things. When I was a … I think I was a senior manager … I had a short office based assignment to get to somebody. So I called up a staff person who I’d worked with over the last few years several times and I knew the quality of work that she did and I knew well enough how to communicate with her. So I brought her into my office and said “Hey let me describe this project to you.” So I told her what I needed her to do, which involved researching something and writing up a summary that was from probably somewhere between half a page and two pages.
And then I sent her on her way, and I said “Okay go ahead and do this, email it over to me when you’re done, and we should be good.” So at the end of the day she shoots me an email and says “Hey I finished the work that you asked me to do, it’s attached.” The attachment was actually there, that gets left off sometimes, but she had it. So I thought, “Great.” I opened up my email and I open up the message and the attachment. I started to read it and as I started to read it my blood started boiling, because what she had done was not at all what I needed. It was nowhere close to what I was looking for, and I started to get so frustrated right in the moment. I was just like “Why? I asked her to do this, and she did this other thing and it’s really different and I don’t understand.” I was really frustrated. So I had these heightened emotions.
Instead of calling her up and laying into her right there, or just telling her to come to the office and explaining why she did everything wrong, I took a couple minutes and I simmered down, which is always a good thing to do when you’re feeling frustrated. So I simmered down and then I called her and I said “Hey can you come over?” And here’s kind of like the magic line, “Can you walk me through what you did?”
So without passing any judgment on “Hey what you turned in was not what I asked for.” Cause that would have made her feel upset herself and inferior and just bad generally, I just asked her to walk me through it. She did. And as she started to do that, it became really clear to me where the disconnect was between what I had asked you to do and what she had received as being the task. And I was able to see where the downfall was in giving the instructions. I asked her to do this, and you interpreted it as that. And it just made a lot of sense and it just brought a lot of relaxation to the conversation on the whole.
Didn’t mean that we didn’t have to go back and re-work it and get it done the way I wanted. I had to be more clear and more specific that I thought she would have understood. But at least that conversation instead of being scary and angry and alienating her further it was more of a connecting conversation. So this kind of one phrase you can do when you’re working with someone and this would be more certainly in a supervisory state is “Walk me through what you did.” And then there are also the difficult conversations where we want to talk with someone else who may be more senior than us and those can be challenging in their own way.
Bob the CPA: I like that example because it actually illustrates two of our points that we’re talking about. I think it illustrates the importance of communication styles up front, for setting expectations. Then it also shows how to handle that if things aren’t exactly matched up when you get the final product, so thank you.
Kristen Rampe: Yeah, you’re welcome.
Bob the CPA: So before I let you go today is there anything we haven’t really covered that you think is really important for these couple topics we’re talking about.
Kristen Rampe: One last thing I’d love to leave people with is … two things. One you mentioned expectations and the clearer we are with our expectations and that could be expectations you have of other people performing work for you or if you are in a position where you’re working for someone else asking them to be clear on their expectations. That either eliminates troubling conversations or it gives you a great basis by which to have more difficult conversation because it’s … you’re not worried about the facts like, let’s say I asked you to show up to a meeting at 9 o’clock and I said “Bob can you please come to this meeting, you need to be there at 9 o’clock it starts at nine.”
And then if you show up at 9:15, I don’t have to be worried about whether or not you knew to come at nine, because I made it very clear before. So we can start that conversation, “Will you agree that … “, well let’s just say we agreed right? You said yes. “We agreed you would be here at nine and you showed up at 9:15.” And then we could go further into that. “What’s going on? Why were you late? Is this going to be something going on in the future? What can we do about it and why is it important.”
And then the last point is another thing that can be really hard to get in touch with but is useful is what do you need out of the situation. So in that example with being on time, an easy default is “Well I need you to be on time.” But what I really need when I think about needs that are for me and for myself is I need to trust that you’re gonna follow through on your promises. So when you think about what is it that you need, that can be really useful for some of those more challenging conversations.
So a couple of points and those are getting pretty deep, a lot of times I cover this content in more of like a full day workshop, so don’t feel bad if it’s all a little bit kind of crazy in the head. Give me a call if you need more information I’d be happy to connect with anybody on it.
Bob the CPA: Would you mind maybe giving us a rundown of the different workshops you offer and kind of who they’re targeted to?
Kristen Rampe: I have a myriad of workshops. I have a leadership development program and that is targeted either towards senior associate level or manager level folks that want to be apart of a two year program typically within their firm or within an association. We go through all sorts of topics from communication to public speaking to project management.
I also work with partner groups on communicating with each other as well as communicating with their staff. A lot of times there’s disconnection of those partners want the staff to get them more questions, and staff want the partners to ask them more questions, and we’ll work together to figure out how to reconnect and sometimes reconnect for the first time. The partners just within themselves or the partners with staff. All of that stuff leads to a lot of great culture and connection within the firm and it makes people really enjoy coming to work more than they may have in the past.
A variety of other topics so one on one coaching is always really interesting, and you can check out all that stuff on my website.
Bob the CPA: Wonderful, we’ll have a link to that in the show notes for today’s episode over at Abacusshow.com. I guess that’s it for today. So thank you Kristen for coming and I really appreciate you being on the show.
Kristen Rampe: Thanks for having me.
Bob the CPA: Before I end the show today I just want to take a quick moment to say thank you to all of you for listening. Because of you guys the Abacus Show was recently in a Journal of Accountancy article as one of the five podcasts accountants should be listening to. That’s really exciting for me and I really appreciate all your support. If you want to check the article out I’ll include a link to it in the show notes for this episode at abacusshow.com/209.
As always thanks for listening, if you like this episode go ahead tell your friends. Because the greatest compliment you can give me is a referral, either in person or shared on the web.
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